As the Brownsville Independent School District prepares for a soft reopening of its schools starting Monday, Superintendent Rene Gutierrez has a message for individuals and groups who oppose the move: Tell the Texas Education Agency about your opposition.
“I invite anyone out there who can help us to focus on petitioning the Texas Education Agency to give us that flexibility of making the local decision of when we can bring the students back to school,” Gutierrez told The Brownsville Herald on Friday. “I invite the organizations out there to help me and help our school board to accomplish our objective of having 100% distance learning to keep everyone safe.”
Gutierrez said the appropriate venue to protest the decision to open schools is TEA and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Petitioning the superintendent, how’s that going to help?” Gutierrez asked. “Petitioning the superintendent is not going to stop the soft opening of the campuses because I’m being required by the Texas Education Agency to comply with their guidelines.”
Specifically, TEA guidance requires BISD to open schools to students without computers or internet access on Sept. 28 during the second four-week transition period mandated by TEA to reopen schools for the 2020-2021 school year. At BISD, teachers are to report to campuses on Monday, followed by high school students needing to recover credit on Wednesday.
Special education students and those without devices or internet are to return on Sept. 28 in grades pre-k through 2nd, 8th and 12th grades. Similar such students in 3rd, 4th, 7th and 11th grades would be added on Oct. 5, with those in 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th grades joining them on Oct. 13.
Gutierrez said Abbott exempted the Rio Grande Valley from new orders on Thursday loosening COVID-19 restrictions elewhere in the state because the infection rate here remains high.
“I understand how employees and some community members are concerned about bringing in the students and bringing in the staff, but I don’t have a choice,” Gutierrez said. “As a superintendent that’s not my choice, it’s at the Texas Education Agency level.”
Gutierrez also said if TEA witholds funding for non-compliance, BISD risks having to lay off employees.
“If we lose funding, then there’s a possibility nobody has a job. I’m trying to keep everyone safe. I’m trying to run a school system where we can comply with the guidelines that we’re required to comply with,” Gutierrez said.
“Do I agree with it? I don’t. But I have a job that I need to do to try and ensure that we do it in the safest way and to comply with the requirements.”
At the district level, BISD has petitioned TEA “to be more considerate of our district and to allow us to continue at 100% distance learning so that we can ensure everyone’s safety,” Gutierrez said.
Veronica Borrego, president of the Association of Brownsville Educators, which represents many Brownsville teachers, said she understands that TEA and the state are requiring BISD to reopen. She said AOBE on the state level has advocated with TEA concerning the return-to-school guidance and that the organization is in contact with state legislators to advocate for BISD staying at 100% distance learning.
But she said her group’s petition on Change.org calling for a vote of no confidence against Gutierrez by the BISD Board of Trustees is about what AOBE regards as Gutierrez’s lack of leadership and failure to communicate effectively with BISD staff before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As an example she said there was no set policy on when employees can use leave hours granted by the CARES Act, as opposed to regular sick leave hours.
“There is not a set protocol in writing. We don’t know if we can use our days, which causes pandemonium among the staff when they change the guidelines at the last minute,” she said. “They may know what’s going on but they’re not telling anyone.”
Borrego also said teachers not being able to take younger children with them to school to teach is causing problems.
“If you’re teaching at home and your daycare is closed what are you going to do when they tell you to teach from your classroom?” she said, adding that the lack of communication is frustrating.
“What we expect is effective and timely communication to the staff to prepare for any changes that the district makes,” she said.
As of 8 p.m. Friday, 1,163 had signed the petition calling for the no-considence vote.
Patrick Hammes, spokesman for AFT-BEST, a union associated with the American Federation of Teachers, often speaks at BISD meetings on behalf of AFT-BEST members.
“It is morally wrong that public school employees have to return to an unsafe working environment or resign their jobs,” he said.